Family vacation is supposed to be fun. For parents, though, worries about money may eclipse the joy of seeing their kids experience new places.
It’s easy to go over budget on vacation. If you’re headed to DisneyWorld, you’ve probably already budgeted tickets for your family of four (two parents and two kids over age 10): $300.00 for one day admission. But did you figure in the refreshments, souvenirs, and photos your kids will beg you to buy while you’re in the Magic Kingdom?
Saving money takes some creative planning, but it doesn’t have to be complicated and it definitely doesn’t have to take away from the fun.
Here are 8 ideas for saving money on your family vacation:
1. Bring the fun with you.
If your family loves outdoor activities, gear rentals can tack on hundreds of extra dollars over the course of a seven day vacation.
Skip that expense altogether by bringing your own gear: bikes, snorkels, rollerblades, surfboards, and sand pails and shovels.
Plan your vacation around activities you already love; you won’t need gear or instruction. The adventure is experiencing it all in a new place.
2. Choose family friendly destinations.
They don’t get much better than Washington, D.C., where you could easily plan seven full days worth of activities that wouldn’t cost a dime. And the cool factor of the Smithsonian and surrounding museums has been amplified by their appearance in recent films, including “National Treasure.”
Beyond the US capital, however, there are other cities that are often overlooked on family vacations. New Orleans is one. Generally seen as a stop for Spring Breakers, New Orleans has even more to offer families, including the Louisiana Children’s Museum and the Audobon Insectarium, which is just one year old.
3. Play in the city; sleep outside of the city.
Cities provide fantastic opportunities for families to have lots of different experiences in a single, compact place: new foods, museums, performances, and historic sites among them.
They’re also budget-killers when it comes time to lay your head down for the night. A recent Expedia search for hotels in New York City (2 adults/2 kids) for July 21-25 retrieved results averaging $195 per night, before taxes.
By comparison, hotels in Yonkers, just 30 minutes north of the city, were at least $30 cheaper on average. In Paramus, New Jersey, a search on Econo Lodge® and Rodeway Inn® hotels retrieved averages that could save you even more.
Sleeping outside of the city or in the suburbs can save a significant chunk of cash.
4. Don’t take your car to the city.
If you do choose to stay in the suburbs or outside of the city, consider leaving your car at the hotel and taking a bus or other public transportation option into the city.
Even with a family of four, public transportation is likely to be cheaper than the combined costs of tolls and parking fees. In large metropolitan cities, you can easily run up a parking tab that exceeds $100 for 8 hours, and that’s before you add the attendant’s tip.
5. Reserve in advance and always ask about family discounts.
Once you’ve selected your destination, do some advance planning.
Do your kids really want to see a Broadway show? Find out when the cheapest seats are available (generally Tuesday and Thursday nights and Wednesday matinees).
No matter where you’re going or what you’re doing, always ask about family discounts. Many attractions offer such discounts but don’t advertise them.
It never hurts for you to ask.
6. Build your vacation around a family volunteer experience.
With the increasing popularity of voluntourism, there are more opportunities than ever for you to have a vacation that’s equal parts fun and meaningful. Try rescuing loggerhead turtles on Pritchard’s Island, South Carolina or building houses for families in need on the Gulf Coast. Whatever your interests are or whatever values you’d like to teach your kids, there’s a volunteer project to match them.
Often, voluntourism opportunities come with other cost-savings built in. Some include accommodations that are either free or deeply discounted. Some many even include food. Be sure to check the specific terms of the option you choose before you arrive.
7. Skip souvenirs.
Before you leave home, let your kids know you won’t be buying dust collectors they’ll forget about five minutes after the cashier has handed you a receipt.
Instead, give your kids a journal, a glue stick, and some colored pencils before the trip—maybe even a disposable camera—and encourage them to collect items along the way they can add to their trip journal. Menus and admissions tickets are just two items that are tangible memories of a fun family trip. Try to build in time and opportunities each day for them to add to their journal.
If you just can’t bring yourself to cut out souvenirs, look for items with special and lasting significance.
If you’re visiting any of the 400 National Parks sites in the United States, the Passport to Your National Parks is a perfect souvenir that kids can keep for years.
8. Start saving for next year now.
Help your kids learn about what goes into getting ready for a trip—including budgeting—by making the vacation planning process a family project.
Call a family meeting and decide where you want to go next year. Depending on your kids’ ages, have them research destinations, activities, and costs. And involve them in saving money for the trip. Set up a spare change jar, where family members can contribute their pocket change to next year’s vacation. As the jar fills up, let them count the change and keep track of the growing funds.
Need some inspiration on where to take your family trip? Check out Photo Essay: Readers’ Favorite Family Vacation Destinations.
And all you kids out there will definitely want to read up on 10 Reasons to Travel with Your Parents as an Adult.